Monday, 7 September 2020

Louis Paulsen - A chess Biography with 719 Games


BOOK REVIEW by Carl Portman

LOUIS PAULSEN – A chess biography with 719 games

by Hans Renette

Hans Renette

Foreword by Michael Negele

Pages: 448

Bibliographic Info: 108 photos, 719 games, appendices, notes, bibliography, indexes

McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers

2018 - 1st edition (Hardcover, 448 pages)


What is this book about?

The official promotional material states:


Louis Paulsen (1833–1891) was one of the 19th century’s strongest chess players and a world record holder in blindfold chess. He maintained an unbeaten record in matches, created several opening systems and was an originator of the positional approach to the game. This extensive biography—the first in English—explores Paulsen’s life and career and includes 719 of his games, presented here with both contemporary and modern comments.



·         Foreword

·         37 Chapters

·         Appendices

·         Bibliography

·         Opponents Index

·         Annotators Index

·         Index of Openings (ECO Codes)

·         Index of Openings (Traditional names)

·         General Index


My thoughts and comments

The look and feel of the book is precisely what I would expect from a McFarland chess publication. It has substantial case binding and the chess material is well set out in terms of text to diagrams. All this on durable quality paper which won’t deteriorate in the way it does with lesser products.


The reader will learn a great deal about Louis Paulsen. To begin with I am not alone in thinking at one point that he was actually American. This view was no doubt influenced by his games against Morphy, and the fact that he did actually live in America. Yet he was German, born and bred. Son of Carl Paulsen, his family grew potatoes, some of the best in Germany, but the world should be pleased that Paulsen chose chess. So few chess players really know about the man, but this definitive work will answer all the questions. It’s been painstakingly researched and I can only doff my cap to Hans Renette for producing not just a chess book but a hugely important historical work.


I wanted to get to know Louis Paulsen as the man and through his games. In addition, I wanted to learn more about his opponents, the tournaments he played in and all the other characters around him at the time.


Paulsen was one of the world’s best players in the 1860’s and the 1870’s, and if Morphy had not been around at the time, perhaps he would even have occupied top spot, at least for a while. The book provides many of his blindfold games, for which he was famous. Indeed, he was the first player to take on 10 people simultaneously without sight of the boards, and he did so over many hours with only a glass of water or lemonade for sustenance. Later there are more over the board (OTB) games to enjoy. His legacy regarding openings continues to this day – I am thinking of the Paulsen-Kan variation of the Sicilian for one.


He had matches with Anderssen and Kolisch (to name but two) and of course his encounters with Paul Morphy (see below). Later he tried to arrange another match with Morphy but to no avail. He came to England and won the Bristol tournament of 1861 and had many more excellent results in Germany particularly.


I also love the annotations of various players from the day. There is no computer analysis here – just thoughts from the masters. That is truly educational even if (or maybe because) their thinking was not always ‘accurate’ in terms of ‘correct’ moves. Then there are the anecdotes and character profiles about players. For example, who on earth knew that Amos Burn once walked 100 miles (yes folks, that is one hundred miles) from Cologne to Frankfurt to play in the Frankfurt am Main tournament of 1887. I wonder if that was with a suitcase? Can the top players of today please stop moaning about playing conditions now?


Then of course, there are the games. It is true that these were the heady times of ‘romantic openings’ and a sort of winner takes all attitude. The King’s Gambit and the Evans Gambit were the order of the day. It was swashbuckling chess that must have made the ladies swoon!


Paulsen was primarily a 1.e4 player and he studied openings intensively at one point, to keep up with the Morphy’s of this world. He would often move pieces backwards not necessarily to defend but to attack from another perspective, and he saw defending as an art form. Those King’s Gambits used to throw up some splendid opportunities for attacking chess though, and the reader will enjoy playing through them in the many games in the book.


I particularly enjoyed this offhand game, where Paulsen was Black against G.H. Mackenzie, played in London in 1861. It had been a King’s Gambit (of course) and White just played 14.Kh3. Apparently, Löwenthal said the next move was ‘ingeniously conceived’ but I reckon the attack minded player even at club level might find the move.


Black played 14…Rxh4+ of course. Now it is one thing to see this move but another to try to calculate through to see if it actually ‘works’. Paulsen could do this, especially being such a magician at blindfold chess.

14...Rh8xh4+! 15.Kh3xh4 Nf6–e4+ No other square will produce checkmate in five moves. 16.Kh4–g4 16.Kh4–h3? Ne4–f2+ 17.Kh3–h2 Qe7–h4+ 18.Kh2–g1 Qh4xh1# 16...Ne4–f2+ 17.Kg4–h5 17.Kg4xf4 Qe7–f6+ 18.Kf4–g3 Bd4–e5# Beautiful. 17...Qe7–e5+ 18.Kh5–h4 18.Kh5–h6 Nf2–e4 and queen mates on h8.

18...Qe5–f6+ 19.Kh4–h5 Qf6–g6+ 20.Kh5–h4 Bd4–f6# 0–1


This is but one game amongst over 700 so there is plenty to enjoy. Of course, Paulsen played Paul Morphy several times at the first American Chess Congress in New York 1857, but lost the final (of 8 games) by 6-2. They did play twice before this – at Blindfold chess. The first at the same American congress on 19th October 1857 where Morphy won and the second on 20th October when again Morphy won. It is said that the two played lots of offhand games, of which there are sadly no records. 


Paulsen’s brother was of Master strength and one of his sisters Amalie played too.

He suffered with illness occasionally - including life threatening jaundice and was a very quiet man who declined social events. He was not though disliked by anyone and he is fondly remembered. It is understood that diabetes caused his death. Sadly. He never wrote any books. Morphy didn’t either for that matter.


Does the book achieve its aim?

Yes! It really is a superb biography of a man who so many chess players of heard of, yet so few can speak about. It is a truly remarkable work. One just has to browse through the bibliography to see the breadth of sources that the author has drawn his information from. It must have taken many years.


Concluding notes

I want to make a separate and special mention about the images in the book. The line drawings are magnificent and truly take the reader back in time to places such as Dubuque main street in Iowa. I studied these images at length and felt as if I could walk right in to them. Then there are the photographs of various players. These must have been tremendously difficult to obtain. There is an astonishing picture of Joseph Henry Blackburne, (known as The Black Death) on page 346. It’s the best I have ever seen of him. The Cleveland Public Library was one of the main sources of the images in the book and I feel privileged that these have been shared. They should be – chess is a history that belongs to us all and Hans Renette has produced something quite magical in that regard.


I can but echo the words of Michael Negele in the foreword where he states that ‘It is exceptionally meritorious of Hans Renette to have finally ensured an ample recognition of Paulsen’s eminent importance for the theoretical development of chess’. Of course, such work does not come cheap and chess players can be notoriously ‘frugal’ with their pennies. That said, for the price of a meal which will be quickly forgotten one can procure this work and keep it forever, dipping in and out of it for sheer enjoyment, especially on those cold winter evenings.  


Who is the author?

Historian Hans Renette is FIDE master in chess (with 2 IM norms). He lives in Bierbeek, Belgium.




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